This time last year, I paid my first visit to the Magdalen Arms in Oxford. It started off a really good run of eating out in the city. Some excellent meals at Oli’s Thai, the Chester Arms, the Pickled Walnut and No.1 Ship Street followed that dinner, but there is no doubt that the Magdalen Arms set a very high bar.
The occasion was a belated Christmas dinner for my team at work. The team had had some recent departures and new arrivals so the evening out was a first for the group. It was an excellent ice-breaker.
I remember sharing a slow cooked lamb dish with a colleague. The meat, falling off the bone into an exquisite gravy was served with a rich dauphinoise perfect for staving off the January cold. Two other colleagues shared a rather appealing short rib and I spent most of the meal trying to decide whether to be jealous or not.
So it was with little hesitation that we opted for a return trip for this year’s belated Christmas outing.
On arrival, it was good to see that the menu had not changed much. As well as a lamb dish for sharing, I was pleased to see that the short rib was still on there. But ultimately, this was Burn’s night and I was swayed by the haggis, neeps and tatties on offer.
To start, some salt cod fritters with aioli (a favourite of mine) were texturally all you could wish for, but the dish flirted on the side of being just a touch too salty, as if the saltfish had not been soaked for long enough.
My main course certainly lived up to expectations. It was a sizeable serving, fit for Mel Gibson and his kilted clan. The haggis itself was pleasingly peppery and the ratio of neeps:tatties:gravy was just right. A dram of whisky on the side was a nice touch.
Dessert of sticky toffee pudding was a slight disappointment. To be fair, this seems to be the only dessert that I have eaten in the last six months. During that period I have had some excellent examples. A home made version at a friend’s house-warming and the one I was forced to swap with Mrs OBEM at the Artist’s Residence spring immediately to mind. Sadly, this one could not compete. It tasted good but I don’t think it helped that the cream had already been poured onto the pudding so that when it arrived it had mingled with the hot toffee sauce giving a strange ‘split’ appearance.
Scratching an itch
But, and it pains me to say that there is a but, whilst the food was certainly of the same high standard, one aspect of the service really annoyed me. Timing may have something to do with this as it is something that I have encountered a few times recently and each time I do, I get progressively more vexed by it.
So what is it that is twisting my melon so?
It is this – on arrival, we were shown to our table and ordered some pre dinner drinks. As an aside, I don’t recall cocktails as featuring on the menu last year but I certainly enjoyed my negroni. We carefully select our starters and mains and chose some nice wine to go with the meal – one red and one white. So far, so good.
We got offered some of their lovely home-made bread (see main picture courtesy of Patricia Niven – doing much more justice than anything I could muster). The starters arrived and looked great, but there was no wine. I waited a bit thinking that it wouldn’t be far behind…it wasn’t. I caught the eye of our waitress who asked if everything was ok. “Yes, but could we get the wine please?” I asked. After a pause, she brought out the wine, but only the red. I waited again, then caught the eye of her colleague and had the same exchange with him. After another pause, the white arrived.
By this time, I had started eating, in fear of my food getting cold, albeit slowly. I looked around the table and somehad already finished their starters.
I appreciate that this is not the biggest crime in the world, but I do find it particularly annoying. I had exactly the same experience at a lunch over Christmas. What is the point of choosing wines as good accompaniments to certain dishes if you are not actually going to get the chance to enjoy them together?
The situation is inevitably compounded by staff who don’t consider this as a problem. All they see is the time between ordering and service which actually might not be that long.
Thankfully, it wasn’t enough to spoil an otherwise enjoyable meal. As it occurred early on there was plenty of time to recover the situation with some fine food and otherwise fine, friendly service. The vegetarians in our party were impressed with the spinach and ricotta rotola, which was a refreshing change to the usual risotto-type offering. And the same two colleagues went for the short rib again, with similar results for both them and me.
Something tells me that we might be going back in 2019.